Bo Ryan is the anti-John Calipari, a coach whose teams usually feature veteran, overachieving shooters instead of the rotating carousel of Kentucky’s freakishly athletic one-and-done crews. As part of their contrasting mentalities, it’s rare a freshman earns a starting spot or even serves as a major offensive weapon for the Wisconsin basketball team.
But that idea of always filling the court with experienced upperclassmen may make an essential, if isolated, exception with the arrival of Sam Dekker next season. Likely the most highly anticipated recruit since center Brian Butch arrived in 2003, Dekker has the opportunity to become a serious scoring threat as a freshman – a true rarity under Ryan.
A consensus Top 25 recruit nationally, the Sheboygan Area Lutheran star earned his latest honor when coaches selected him as one of 26 players to try out for the Under-18 National squad. Headed up by Billy Donovan, only 12 players will make the final cut, but the experience of competing against the top high school players in the country only adds to the tremendous future potential of Dekker. The small forward averaged better than 30 points per game in a senior campaign that included a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win the Division 5 state championship, a shot that earned him SportsCenter’s top play accolades.
Freshmen have made an immediate impact before – most recently when Josh Gasser landed a starting spot in 2010-11 – but Dekker has the skills to be a double-figures scorer when he steps on the court next year. Despite a rail-like 6-foot-8 frame that will need to bulk up before the Badgers enter notoriously physical Big Ten play, the Sheboygan, Wis., native has few faults aside from a lack of strength. As an athletic shooter who can still find his way to the rim, Dekker appears a perfect fit for the versatility that allows Wisconsin’s signature swing offense to perform optimally.
Named Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball earlier this year, he put up at least 40 points in five different games last season and showered Random Lake High School with 58 points in February. It’s fair to say talent is not much of a question for Dekker, and while the skill transition to the college level is difficult to predict, he appears to be a skilled enough player for Ryan to take a chance on early.
Although Wisconsin will retain its two best forwards next year in Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren, Dekker could fill in alongside Evans or senior Mike Bruesewitz. Jumping into a starting role may be a lofty expectation, but the small forward could be one of Ryan’s first options off the bench in 2012-13.
After losing their top scoring threat in cold-blooded point guard Jordan Taylor, the Badgers will likely count on a host of players, starting with Berggren and Evans, to carry the offensive load. But don’t be surprised if Dekker – along with the likes of Gasser, Bruesewitz and Ben Brust – is a significant part of that effort.
In reflecting on the recent Jarrod Uthoff transfer controversy, some identified Uthoff’s departure as a product of Dekker challenging him for a spot on the court. Though Uthoff denied such reasoning, Ryan has already lauded Dekker as a player he can’t wait to start coaching and many don’t expect him to spend his first season riding the bench.
The five-star recruit has the potential to bring a new dimension to UW’s offense, one often pegged as not being able to beat the nation’s elite teams due to their opponents’ superior athleticism. Not a player talented or developed enough to leave for the NBA after his first season or two, Dekker could grow into a true star over the course of his career at Wisconsin. With impressive ball-handling skills for a player who stands at 6-foot-8, his versatility is perhaps his greatest asset.
While it’s strange to consider a freshman becoming an essential offensive option in a Wisconsin uniform, it’s important to consider past instances. It’s surprisingly rare that a player of Dekker’s caliber even decides to take his talents to Madison, a trend that lies at the foundation of the rather limited history of impact-making freshmen. As a program that regularly counts on role players to develop into consistent, double-figure scorers as they progress through their college careers, freshman sensations are not commonplace.
One shining example of freshman success stands in Devin Harris, who put up 12.3 points per game in his first season on the Kohl Center floor in 2001-02. Alando Tucker, who finished his career as Wisconsin’s all-time leading scorer, managed similar numbers as a freshman in Ryan’s low-scoring system. So while Wisconsin may be the anti-Kentucky, Dekker would not be treading uncharted territory in a program that turns heads when it starts a freshman and rarely sees first-year players play a critical offensive role.
If the selection to the U18 National Team is a sign of anything, it’s that Dekker at least has the talent to help Wisconsin to a 12th straight NCAA tournament appearance in his freshman year. Wisconsin won the recruiting lottery when the top prospect in the state decided to play for the Badgers, and they should take advantage of that victory from the start.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think Dekker will live up to the hype, or is he just a slightly more athletic version of J.P. Gavinski? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.